Archive 5, Vol.3

I have a backlog of 437 unreviewed feature films from my 2018 to 2021 viewing. This is where I give those films their day, five at a time, selected by a random number generator.

Today, everything from silent comedies to afterlife comedies to toy-licence-based adventure comedies (a burgeoning genre we’re sure to see more of in years to come). Plus a revisionist Arthurian legend for good measure.

This week’s Archive 5 are…

  • Guinevere (1994)
  • The Kid (1921/1972)
  • Defending Your Life (1991)
  • The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part (2019)
  • Sherlock Jr. (1924)


    Guinevere

    (1994)

    Jud Taylor | 91 mins | digital (SD) | 4:3 | USA & Lithuania / English

    Guinevere

    This Lifetime TV movie is like an American Renaissance faire cosplay version of Arthurian legend. Its attempt at a feminist take on the famed stories is interesting, but deserves better writing, filmmaking, and accents.

    Most of Guinevere’s flaws come from its low-rent made-for-US-TV-in-the-’90s roots (the mediocre direction; the tacky music score), but that’s also its biggest asset, because when and for whom it was made means it was shot on film, which gives it a certain gloss (even when downgraded to SD) that taped or digital productions simply lack.

    Story-wise, the love triangle stuff from legend is there, but given a YA spin — it’s practically Arthurian Twilight. Are you Team Arthur or Team Jacob? The feminist bent is not subtle either, which, given changes in attitudes over the past few decades, makes you wonder if it’s ripe for a re-adaptation (it’s based on a trilogy of novels with magnificently florid titles like Child of the Northern Spring and Queen of the Summer Stars).

    You see, despite everything, I didn’t hate it. Maybe I should — it’s not good, by any means — but I liked what it was trying to do, even while it didn’t do it well (at all). It’s a concept someone should definitely take another run at.

    2 out of 5

    Guinevere was #209 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    The Kid

    (1921/1972)

    Charlie Chaplin | 50 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / silent | U

    The Kid

    Charlie Chaplin’s first feature-length work as star and director sees his Tramp character caring for an abandoned child (Jackie Coogan). I say “feature length”, but when you combine a re-edit Chaplin performed in 1972 with PAL speedup, it runs just 50 minutes. I’ve gotta say, I appreciated that. I’ve felt some of Chaplin’s other films have gone on a bit, whereas this didn’t outstay its welcome. That said, I did feel the Dreamland sequence near the end was filler. That aside, it’s quite a nice film. Coogan is particularly effective — he has just the right look for the role, and was obviously very good at imitation and/or taking direction.

    Regarding the length, the original 1921 release was 68 minutes, but for a 1972 reissue Chaplin cut some footage, appears to have sped up the frame rate of the rest, and added a score and some sound effects too. It’s only this cut that gets released on disc nowadays (often with the excised footage included as deleted scenes). The original cut clearly still exists, and yet everyone just seems to overlook it — it’s only if you bother to read up on the film that you discover what most people are watching and reviewing as “a 1921 film” is actually a 50-years-later director’s cut. Imagine if we all just ignored, say, Blade Runner’s original version and just treated The Final Cut as— oh, wait. Never mind.

    4 out of 5

    The Kid was #60 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    Defending Your Life

    (1991)

    Albert Brooks | 111 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Defending Your Life

    Writer-director Albert Brooks stars as a loner advertising exec who dies and finds himself in a bureaucratic afterlife where he has to prove that he overcame his fears. While he awaits his trial, he finally meets the love of his (after)life, Julia (Meryl Streep).

    For a film that’s literally about life and death, Defending Your Life is rather gentle. Like, it’s rarely laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s often slightly amusing. And it’s unhurried, too: its 111 minutes aren’t tedious by any means, but it doesn’t rush anywhere. A fun side effect of this is how casual its world-building is. This is a very specific vision of the afterlife, an entire world with its own rules, and while that’s all explained, it’s not laid out in minute detail like a how-to guide. I feel like this is something movies used to happily do but has been eroded by the need for everything to be over-explained and -analysed.

    I liked Defending Your Life a good deal (I’ve picked up a couple more of Brooks’s films on Blu-ray off the back of it), and part of that is certainly its laidback style. Nonetheless, perhaps if it were snappier — quicker witted and paced — it might be a better-remembered film, comparable to something roughly contemporaneous like Groundhog Day.

    4 out of 5

    Defending Your Life was #113 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


    The LEGO Movie 2:
    The Second Part

    (2019)

    Mike Mitchell | 107 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.40:1 | USA, Denmark, Norway & Australia / English | U / PG

    The LEGO Movie 2

    After the surprise success of The LEGO Movie, naturally a sequel had to follow. Unfortunately, it’s altogether less surprising, because it’s that old fashioned sequel thing: a less-good do-over of the first movie.

    The Second Part feels less focused than its predecessor. It still has a positive message (about not needing to grow up, and about playing together, or something), but it takes a while to get to it, rather than baking it into the entire experience. Maybe that’s intellectualising things a bit — this is a family-friendly adventure-comedy starring toys, after all. But still, the overall journey doesn’t feel as exciting or fun. There are fun little bits on the way, but, moment to moment, it lacks the spark of the first one.

    For a specific example, take the breakout hit of the first film, the irritating song Everything Is Awesome. That angle has been doubled down on, with multiple attempts at emulating the “irritating but kinda loveable” song formula; but while these numbers are annoying while they last, they don’t have the irrepressible catchiness of the first film’s signature achievement — a mixed blessing, to be sure (at least they won’t be stuck in your head afterwards). The end credits are accompanied by a song that jokes about the credits being the best part… but, in this case, the credits kinda are the best part.

    3 out of 5

    The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part was #33 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    Sherlock Jr.

    (1924)

    Buster Keaton | 45 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | USA / silent | U

    Sherlock Jr

    Apparently there are ever-raging arguments within the silent film fan community about who was the best comedian of the era. Charlie Chaplin’s got the most widespread recognition, but Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd have their advocates, of course, and I guess there are probably people shouting in favour of smaller names too. I didn’t think I’d ever pick a ‘side’ in these debates — I’m certainly not about to go seeking them out and wading in — and, fundamentally, I do hold with the notion that the greats are all great and so why not appreciate them all? — but, from what I’ve seen thus far, I’m finding Keaton’s work more consistently enjoyable than Chaplin’s. Sherlock Jr. is my favourite of his that I’ve seen so far.

    Keaton plays a film projectionist who’s studying to be a detective on the side. When he’s framed for the theft of a watch, his apparent guilt doesn’t give him much chance to put his skills to the test. But when he falls asleep during a movie, he steps inside it and becomes the world’s greatest detective. And when I say “steps inside”, I mean it in the most literal sense possible: the projectionist walks through the screen and into the movie, and is suddenly subject to its whims — for example, he’s confounded whenever it cuts to a new location. The sequence is both thoroughly entertaining and technically faultless — and I say that viewing it nearly 100 years after it was made, after all the advances in technique and effects we’ve had in that time. Reportedly, the film’s cameraman, Byron Houck, went as far as using surveying equipment to ensure the camera was positioned correctly so the transitions were seamless. The effort paid off.

    The same is true in several other incredible sequences, like a billiards game filled with trick shots, which Keaton rehearsed for four months with a pool expert and then took five days to film. Or a motorbike chase with more I-can’t-believe-he-just-did-that death-defying stunts than one of Tom Cruise’s impossible missions. The technical skill is faultless and, even if you’re not wowed by how they pulled it off, the sequences are immensely entertaining in their own right. Maybe it’s just personal taste, but this is why I have a preference for Keaton: his skits are more ingenious, better paced, and backed up with impressive stunt work. When you mix those daredevil antics with genuine movie magic, as he does here, you get a majestic, unforgettable farce.

    5 out of 5

    Sherlock Jr. was #102 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2019. It was viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2019. It placed 3rd on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2019.


  • Shrek the Third (2007)

    2018 #101
    Chris Miller | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | U / PG

    Shrek the Third

    Shrek the Third is notorious as The Bad One; the one where the bubble burst on the phenomenon that had sustained two well-reviewed and immensely financially successful films. The list of failed threequels is long — so long, you almost wonder why anyone bothers to make them — and while Shrek the Third does indeed do little to buck that trend, it could be worse.

    The title isn’t just a variation from calling the film Shrek 3, but also hints at the plot: when the king dies, Shrek is next in line to the throne. But he’s been struggling so much at royal engagements that he wants out of that life anyway, never mind a promotion. Fortunately, there is a possible alternative: a young lad called Arthur. While Shrek, Donkey and Puss set off to find this spare heir, Princess Fiona and a cohort of other fairytale princesses must fend off an attack from Prince Charming, who still has eyes on the throne.

    It’s not a terrible plot for a Shrek movie, but it’s not particularly original either. Thematically, Shrek’s disinterest in being royalty was covered in the last film, though at least this time it’s bolstered with a fatherhood angle. The choice of villain, however, straight up takes the last film’s secondary antagonist and recycles him as a primary antagonist — if there’s a more literal example of sequels representing diminishing returns, I can’t think of it.

    Action princesses

    As for everything else, there are some good ideas and funny bits here and there, but there’s also something that’s just… off. It’s not consistently amusing or creative enough. It doesn’t have the same effortless energy and pace as the first two. And some of its ideas sound decent on paper, but just don’t work in the film. For example, the fairytale twist on a high school where they find Arthur — Shrek’s got good mileage out of spoofing the real world before, so you can see the genesis of the idea, but it just doesn’t land here, with the setting being an irritant rather than an amusing parallel.

    Although the film still credits Andrew Adamson, writer and/or director of both previous films, as among its executive producers, I reckon there must have been debilitating changes behind the scenes, because the whole production just comes up short. Like, where the previous films offered legitimately exciting action scenes, the ones here could be decent but come off flat. It shouldn’t matter — this is a fantasy comedy, not an action movie — but it’s just one part that’s emblematic of the whole. Another is the song choices, which, like the fairytale high school thing, are seemingly okay but actually just wrong. As in, most of them are good songs, but they so often don’t actually quite fit the movie — I mean, Live and Let Die during a funeral?

    Shrek the Third isn’t entirely without merit, but something seems to have gone awry between conception and execution, and it doesn’t zing in the way its predecessors did.

    3 out of 5

    Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)

    2018 #47
    Michael Bay | 155 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 1.90:1 + 2.00:1 + 2.35:1* | USA, China & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

    Transformers: The Last Knight

    Here we have the fifth Transformers film in 11 years from director Michael Bay. At this point you ought to know what you’re getting — the style hasn’t fundamentally changed since at least the third movie, arguably since the first, so if you dislike those then most probably there’s nothing for you here. I say “probably” because I’ve seen at least one review from someone who despised the fourth film but enjoyed this one, so clearly there’s always room for variability.

    We’re dealing with variations on a theme, then, and The Last Knight brings a few fresh-to-the-franchise plot spins to add a different flavour and texture this time out. Firstly, a prologue tells us that Transformers were already in England about 1,600 years ago, when they fought alongside King Arthur and Merlin, the latter of whom didn’t wield magic but actually Autobot technology (and is played by Stanley Tucci, hamming it up something rotten). This relates to the present day because… well, I could explain it to you, but it gets fiddly and, frankly, if you care then you’ll find out when you watch it. But, basically, in present day America Transformers are hunted and Cade (Mark Wahlberg) is an outlaw helping hide some of them and rescue others. When a MacGuffin from Arthurian times attaches itself to him, he winds up on his way to England to meet Sir Anthony Hopkins, the last in a long order of… oh, yeah, I said I wasn’t going to explain it. Anyway, only Marky Mark and Clever English Totty (Laura Haddock, playing the kind of Oxford professor who dresses like a secretary in a porn film) can save the world. Who do they need to save the world from? Optimus Prime! Dun dun duuuun!

    Now he's called Nemesis Prime, for no good reason

    It’s all nonsense, of course, but then the inherent concept of Transformers never made any sense so what does it matter? Adding in Arthurian legend and making Optimus Prime a baddie doesn’t make it any dafter than it already was. And that’s only the half of it — there are more disparate story threads and subplots than a particularly complicated miniseries. Despite being shorter than the last movie, it’s still indulgently long — and needlessly so, too. There’s a ton of stuff that could be cut to streamline the plot, from individual shots and lines (the Arthurian prologue is probably twice as long as it needs to be) to whole characters (a street girl Cade basically adopts, Izabella, contributes nothing of major significance in the end). After about an hour, the story basically stops and starts again — that’s how long it takes to get to Sir Hopkins. Stuff from the first hour remains relevant, certainly, but I’m sure there were other ways to handle it. By getting through the first hour of the movie in half the time, for one thing. For another, don’t introduce major-seeming characters that you’re then just going to set aside and ignore for the next hour while you introduce whole new ones.

    It’s remarkable how the Transformers movies can have way too much plot and not enough plot all at once. If you want to follow it you have to pay attention, not only because there’s a lot of mythology to take in, but also because Michael Bay chops it all up into bite-size chunks amongst frenetic action sequences. The film is cut like one long trailer — but that’s been Bay’s MO for a while, so, as I said at the start, no one should be surprised. It remains, in its own way, impressive. As I previously said in my review of Age of Extinction, it’s almost avant-garde: a tumble of images and sound that give you an impression of what’s occurring rather than straightforward traditional storytelling. And I say it’s impressive because it must be so much work to create — all the camera setups involved; events staged for a single, fleeting, couple-of-seconds shot; and then edited together with non-stop dynamism, rarely pausing for any notable period.

    Non-stop Bayhem

    And if you think that’s mad, wait until you see how Bay uses aspect ratios. Thanks to Christopher Nolan and The Dark Knight blazing a trail, we’ve now had a fair few movies that use the IMAX format for select sequences, and emulate that on home media by allowing the aspect ratio to change — for laypeople, that’s when the black bars at the top and bottom disappear and the picture fills the screen. As I say, generally this is used for specific sequences, or occasionally for a particularly grand individual shot; and usually there are two ratios, approximately 2.40:1 (with the black bars) and approximately 1.78:1 (without). Bay uses… more than that. And he does so almost indiscriminately. They’re so all over the place that you can’t miss them. Like, there are standard shot-reverse-shot conversations between two characters, but each character has a different aspect ratio… and then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, halfway through the scene one side will switch to another ratio! It just leaves you wondering why and how it ended up this way. What was the intention? What was the point? Well, that’s not a new question with Bay — he still uses five shots when one would do, so why not extend that same thinking to the film’s aspect ratio?

    Despite the faffing around, much of it still looks impressive in a purely visceral sense. Like every modern tentpole, it cost a fortune to make ($217 million), but at least it looks like it did: there are so many grand sets and large-scale set pieces, much of it built or performed for real — not the giant robots, obviously, but there are car chases and human stunts and so forth that they did in real-life rather than in a computer. The money is splashed all over the screen, to the nth degree. Is that inherently a good thing? Eh. But it makes you wonder where some other $200m+ movies spend their money — especially when you consider that apparently production difficulties resulted in a lot of material being filmed but never making it into the final cut. How much? Well, supposedly a whole hour of footage was ditched from the original cut to get to the theatrical version. As I’ve already said, the film’s too long as it is, but it’s a shame there are no deleted scenes available because I’d be kind of fascinated to know what more was meant to be there, and to see how much money it looks like they wasted on it.

    They really did hang Marky Mark out the side of a speeding vehicle, donchaknow

    In what we did get to see, the size of the endeavour and the impressive quality of the imagery is emphasised by how it was filmed. A large proportion of the movie was shot in IMAX 3D (apparently 98%, but I’m certain there was more than three minutes in non-IMAX aspect ratios), and there are innumerable moments that benefit from the depth and scope of the format. Post-conversion has come a long way, but I’m not sure it can always equal doing it for real, especially on a format with the quality of IMAX. That said, the visual splendour didn’t strike me as much as it did in Age of Extinction. Perhaps that’s because, as Richard Brody put it in his New Yorker review, Bay’s “sense of speed works against his sense of scale and of detail. All the best moments in the movie — pure images, devoid of symbol and, for that matter, nearly empty of sense — go by too fast, are held too briefly, are developed too little.” There are some great shots in here, but the rapid editing just races past them. If you wanted to find and appreciate the shots fully, you’d have to damn near go through the whole thing frame by frame. I’m not sure they’re that good.

    Although Bay and his directorial style always get a critical slating for these movies (more so than others he’s made in the same period — Pain & Gain and 13 Hours both attracted a reasonable amount of praise), they let him keep making them, and he keeps wanting to. The former makes sense: although you rarely find someone who admits to liking them, they keep making money (The Last Knight is the series’ lowest grosser worldwide, thanks to a particularly poor US showing, but it still took over $600m). As for the latter… no, I don’t know why he keeps coming back. Can you think of another blockbuster-level director who’s made five films in the same series? No one instantly comes to mind for me, and even those who are close (Lucas with Star Wars; Spielberg with Indiana Jones) did so over a long period of time with many films in between. I mean, if Bay wants to do it then why not — it’s his life and career — but I don’t quite understand it.

    The three-headed robot dragon that I almost forgot

    As I said nearly 1,500 words ago (I never imagined I’d have so much to say about this movie — and I haven’t even mentioned the three-headed robot dragon, or the C3PO-alike comic relief butler), everyone should know what they’re getting with the Transformers films by now. The Last Knight shares the same pros and cons as the other entries in the series, to one degree or another — by which I mean that, for instance, I found the plot a little more coherent than last time (though still totally barmy), but I wasn’t quite as bowled over by the visuals (which are at least half the point of these films, I feel). On balance, I’d say it’s one of the franchise’s better instalments.

    3 out of 5

    Transformers: The Last Knight is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    * The listed ratio for The Last Knight is 1.90:1, because that’s the tallest, but its shifts into various other ratios are very obvious, as I discuss in the review. The three I’ve listed are the most obvious, but one of the trailers was shown to use eight slightly different ratios, so who knows how many there really are? ^

    King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

    2018 #15
    Guy Ritchie | 126 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

    After years of making fundamentally similar movies, director Guy Ritchie found renewed success reinventing Sherlock Holmes for Warner Bros. I presume that’s directly responsible for the studio tapping him to kickstart this long-gestating project: a series of films inspired by the legends of King Arthur. Unfortunately for them, plans for a six-film series were scuppered when this initial entry went down like a lead balloon with critics and consequently was a box office flop. Nonetheless, some people who I think are worth listening to reckoned it was actually pretty good. Turns out… eh…

    Set in a vaguely-defined historical Britain (the capital is called Londinium, but the king resides at Camelot, which is… somewhere else…?), Legend of the Sword begins with King Uther (Eric Bana) being deposed by his scheming brother Vortigern (Jude Law), with only his young son Arthur escaping. Arthur grows up in a brothel and on the streets, going from a weedy kid to… some kind of, like, gang boss type figure, I guess? Basically, we’re in familiar Guy Ritchie territory: lads up to criminal hijinks with a London accent, only now in medieval costumes. Anyway, long story short, Excalibur — the eponymous sword — reveals itself stuck in a stone, every young man is forced to try to pull it out, which obviously Arthur succeeds at, marking him out for death by Vortigern but also as the true king to those who remain loyal to Uther, who now have a Robin Hood-esque underground army — and so they begin a Robin Hood-esque campaign against Vortigern. Seriously, it wouldn’t take too many tweaks to make this as passable a Robin Hood film as it is a King Arthur one.

    King Arthur and his merry men

    So, to no one’s great surprise, if you’re looking for a broadly faithful adaptation of Arthurian legend then you’re out of luck here. There are obviously famous bits of the legend thrown in — the aforementioned Excalibur and its stone; the Lady of the Lake pops up too; and… um… other than that it’s pretty much just people’s names, really. I don’t know how much critics were hoping to see a more recognisably Arthurian tale, but I have to wonder if this massive deviance from the well-known stories of the eponymous hero is at least partly responsible for the film’s poor reception.

    Part of why I wonder this is that, if you approach Legend of the Sword less as a King Arthur film and more as a Guy Ritchie-flavoured fantasy movie, there are bits of it I think are really, really good. Some of it’s great, even, like an efficient and exciting montage that shows Arthur growing from child to adult. Or any other time there’s a montage, really — that’s the best one, but others are equally as effective. Second best, for instance, is one where Arthur has to go on a quest in some alternate dark dimension or something, battling giant bats and other such nasties. That’d be the whole of act two in other films, or at least a significant action sequence, but its basic content is all so rote — so Ritchie instead burns through it in a montage, which feels like a nod and a wink to the audience: “you know how this goes”. Editor James Herbert certainly gives his skills a workout making these sequences fast, clear, and cinematically thrilling.

    He's gonna need a montage

    Of course, if you really dislike Ritchie’s trademark style then him slapping it on the fantasy genre isn’t necessarily going to enrapture you. Reportedly the project was pitched to the studio and cast as “Lord of the Rings meets Snatch” and they’ve pretty much delivered on that promise, transposing Ritchie’s modern London laddish schtick onto medieval Londinium plebs. Personally, although I’ve somewhat tired of his recognisable approach in a contemporary setting, the temporal disjunct was a fresh enough variation for me, breathing new life into both Ritchie’s MO and fantasy tropes.

    Unfortunately, for all the verve of his own style that Ritchie injects, there are also bits that typify CGI-blockbuster blandness — the final fight is a nothingy blur. The speedy, montage-driven style also allows for only so much character development. What time there is gets focused on Arthur and Vortigern, which I suppose is appropriate enough, with a large supporting cast fighting over the scraps. It seems obvious to me that a mysterious female character known only as “The Mage” was meant to be revealed as Guinevere (a conceit broadly nicked from the Jerry Bruckheimer King Arthur, I think), and indeed that was apparently nixed in post-production. I guess they thought they could bump it to one of the five sequels… which now aren’t happening.

    Come and 'ave a go if you think yer 'ard enough

    My final three-star rating is maybe a bit harsh, but then maybe I’ve been too generous with my fours lately (or always). If Legend of the Sword had been able to carry through on the impetus of its best bits then it may even have been looking at a full five stars, they’re that good, but it doesn’t come together as a whole. It’s not the failure mass opinion painted it as, but it’s not quite a success either — it’s an interesting “good try”.

    3 out of 5

    King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is available on Sky Cinema from today.